Gifted Students Have 'Special Needs,' Too

It's not elitist to pour more resources into educating our brightest kids. In fact, the future of the country may depend on it. 

gifted.jpgA high school senior paints a portrait at the School for Talented and Gifted in Dallas. (Reuters)

Are our national education-reform priorities cheating America's intellectually ablest girls and boys? Yes -- and the consequence is a human capital catastrophe for the United States. It's not as dramatic or abrupt as the fiscal cliff. But if we fail to pay attention, one day we'll be very sorry.

In a recent New York Times column, I explained how America could benefit from more schools and classes geared toward motivated, high-potential students. Here, I want to look more deeply at why such initiatives are unfashionable, even taboo, among today's education reformers.

We'd like to believe that every teacher can do right by every child in each classroom. But let's be serious: how many of our 3 million-plus teachers are up to this challenge? The typical class is profoundly diverse in ability, motivation, and prior attainment. In most cases, instructors -- under added pressure from state and federal accountability regimes -- end up focusing on pupils below the "proficient" line, at the expense of their high achievers.

You don't have to search hard for evidence that teachers and school systems are neglecting them. Take, for instance, our longstanding failure to get more than a few percent of U.S. students scoring at or above the National Assessment's "advanced" level -- in any subject or grade level. Study the data showing how far our students' scores lag behind those of many competitor countries. Consider the ongoing need of high-tech employers to import highly educated personnel from abroad.

Then look at the unmet demand for "gifted and talented" schools and classrooms (and teachers suited to them). For many years, Washington's only sign of interest in this portion of the K-12 universe was the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program. Since 2004, however, Congress has steadily decreased funding for the program; last year, that contribution dropped to $0. And despite plenty of evidence that America is failing to nurture its gifted students, the problem fails to awaken much interest from education leaders and philanthropists. Why is this so?

Consider these possible explanations.

First, there's nervousness about elitism. This is fed by the small percentages of low-income black and Hispanic youngsters in many gifted-and-talented classrooms and specialized schools. In reality, however, this underrepresentation reflects the education system's own failure to identify such kids and counsel them into a sufficiency of classrooms, schools, and programs -- a failure that inevitably advantages upper middle class youngsters with pushy, well-educated, well-connected parents.

Second, there's the widespread belief--originating on the left but no longer confined there -- that "equity" should be solely about income, minority status, handicapping conditions, and historical disenfranchisement. Most of American society does not seem to believe that giftedness constitutes a "special need" or that inattention to it violates some children's equal rights.

Third, there is a mistaken belief that high-ability youngsters will do fine, even if the education system makes no special provision for them. This mindset is particularly convenient in a time of budget crunches, when districts feel pressured enough focusing on low-achieving kids at failing schools.

Fourth, the definition of "gifted" itself has been hazy. We have concrete numbers regarding kids who live in poverty or suffer from disabilities. We even know that 10 percent of the population is left-handed. But how many students are gifted? There's little agreement on this key point. Some people talk about "the talented tenth," others about the "top one percent." The Templeton Foundation is bent on finding the one person in a million (its own estimate) who qualifies as a genius. Meanwhile, some prefer to advance the woolly claim that everybody is gifted in some way -- a notion that doesn't help matters, at least in policy circles.

Fifth, the field of gifted education lacks convincing research as to what works. My coauthor, education expert Jessica Hockett, and I became more aware of this problem when researching our recent book, Exam Schools. We found just two smallish studies focusing on the actual effectiveness of selective-admission public high schools. Worse, those two studies found scant advantage for the selective-admission schools.

Presented by

Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant secretary of education under Ronald Reagan, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. More

Chester E. Finn Jr. has been involved in national education for 35 years. Currently, Finn serves as president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and is senior editor of Education Next. He is also a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and chairman of Hoover’s Koret Task Force on K-12 education. Previously, he served as a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, counsel to the U.S. ambassador to India, legislative director for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and assistant U.S. secretary of education for research and improvement. He holds a doctorate from Harvard in education policy.

The author of 19 books and more than 400 articles, Finn’s work has appeared in The Weekly Standard, Christian Science Monitor, Commentary, The Public Interest, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Education Week, Harvard Business Review, and The Boston Globe. Finn is the recipient of awards from the Educational Press Association of America, Choice magazine, the Education Writers Association, and the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge. He holds an honorary doctorate from Colgate University. He and his wife, Renu Virmani, a physician, have two grown children and three granddaughters. They live in Chevy Chase MD.

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